Does Might Make Right? Individuals, Ethics, and Exceptionalism 5 In his introductory essay for Vol. 3, Iss. 1 of TNSR, the chair of our editorial board, Francis J. Gavin, discusses the choices made by individual statesmen, how to evaluate their motives, and the role of ethics in making grand strategic choices. 1   Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, chap. XVII, “Sixteenth Year of the War - The Melian Conference - Fate of Melos,” accessed at,, on Feb 4, 2020. 2   Unforgiven , directed by Clint Eastwood (1992; USA: Warner Bros., Inc.). 3   Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1979). L ike many new professors of interna- tional relations, my early career syllabi often included Thucydides’ Melian dia- logue from the History of the Peloponne- sian War . In the fifth century B.C., the great sea power Athens demanded that the small island of Melos, an ally of Sparta, lay down its arms and be- come a vassal of the Athenian empire. The Melians thought this both unjust and unwise — why not simply allow Melos to remain neutral? Wasn’t it im- moral to force a free people who posed no threat to relinquish their independence? The leaders of Athens were unmoved. “Since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” When the Melians refused to surrender, the Athenians conquered the island, and “put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.” 1 I taught this dialogue to demonstrate to young, presumably idealistic students that the world was a dangerous place, where military power was the critical variable, and the most important outcomes in the world, such as war and peace, were shaped by the structure of the international system. I would also give them a more modern example from the 1992 movie Unforgiven. The film takes place in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where William Munny, the main character, played by Clint Eastwood, reluc- tantly joins with two others to claim a $1,000 re- ward offered to avenge the mutilation of a pros- titute. In the course of the story, a tyrannical and cruel town sheriff, Little Bill, has impeded justice and tortured and killed Munny’s oldest friend. To- ward the end of the film, Eastwood’s character has the sheriff cornered. Bill begs for his life. “I don’t deserve this. To die like this.” Before shooting him, Munny replies: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” 2 The universe is cold, unforgiving, and unfair. The excellent articles in this issue caused me to rethink the actual lessons of Thucydides’ history, to say nothing of Unforgiven . A series of crucial questions tie them together: How do statesmen make choices about complex and consequential issues in the world? How do we evaluate both the motives and outcomes of these decisions? Are they driven by considerations of power and interest only, or do values and ethics come into play? What role does the political orientation of the regime, and the history and culture of a nation, play in de- cision-making? It is important to remember that there is a per- spective that sees placing an emphasis on ethics, individual choices, and regime type in international relations as misplaced. Athens was an enlightened, democratic society, led by intelligent, noble leaders who took civic justice in the polis seriously. In rela- tions with their neighbors, however, Athenians be- lieved that fear and power — not justice and mercy — shaped outcomes. This is, of course, the view of neorealism, perhaps the most dominant theoretical paradigm among international relations programs in American universities over the past half-centu- ry. For neorealists, the most important considera- tion when assessing global affairs is the anarchic structure of the international system. 3 With no sovereign authority to arbitrate disputes, the com- ponents of the system — states — are forced to compete ruthlessly for survival and dominance, a competition that, in a “self-help” system, is deter- mined by the balance of military power. States are like billiard balls — neither the quirks of particular leaders nor the internal, domestic characteristics of nations count for very much in this struggle. History provides stark examples of what hap- pens when structural factors are ignored. At the start of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe, possessing a higher degree of tolerance and liberal governance than any of its neighbors. By the end of the century, it no longer existed, swallowed up by its neighbors — Russia, Prussia, and Austria — in three partitions. This outcome was the inevitable